The Canadian premiere of American playwright Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries is kind of a victim of bad timing. It's opened for a brief run amid a merry-go-round of high-profile openings and is at risk of falling off the slide into the sandbox without many people noticing. Before it closes this weekend, it's worth catching this slightly sick but touching portrait of a friendship founded on mutually reassured self-destruction.
Joseph's 2009 play tracks two injury-prone, opposite-sex pals over the course of two decades. We first meet Kayleen (Janet Porter) and Doug (Peter Mooney) when they first meet each other – at age 8, in the nurse's office of their elementary school.
Kayleen is there because she keeps vomiting; Doug is there because he cut his head open after riding a bike off the rooftop like his hero Evel Knievel. This sets the template for their future accidents and illnesses: Doug sustains injuries that are showy and external; Kayleen's hurts are private and hidden away.
Employing a chopped-up chronology, Joseph contrasts scene between Kayleen and Doug as adults with others from their childhood and teenage years. Their relationship is, in the parlance of Facebook, complicated. Friendship turns into romance, but then evolves into a more ambiguous, but no less intimate, connection.
Doug comes to see Kayleen as a kind of angel with the power of healing, but her demons – the source of which is eventually hinted at, if never explicitly revealed – keep her from engaging in a healthy human relationship.
Stefan Dzeparoski's production, set in a playground cluttered with bubble-wrap bodies, takes a leisurely approach to the work. During the eerie scene changes, Porter and Mooney slowly strip down to their skivvies and then prepare for the next part of the play by gently applying makeup to one another to simulate the characters' injuries – a series of cuts up and down the thigh, an eye blown up by fireworks. This tender wounding of one another is strangely moving to observe. It adds a necessarily extra level to a play that might otherwise seem slight and underwritten.
Porter and Mooney are extremely well cast as these two inarticulate members of the underclass. Their individual performances don't necessarily grab you – indeed, a monologue Kayleen delivers to a comatose Doug is the only weak scene in the production. But there's a balance and chemistry between the two that holds mysterious power; when they do share a kiss, it melts the stage.
Saliva isn't the only bodily fluid the two mix here, however – and, fair warning, Gruesome Playground Injuries isn't for the squeamish; its characters meet at Catholic school, and this play shares that church's artistic penchant for poking fingers into wounds.
Joseph's fantasia on the Iraq War, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, played on Broadway last year with Robin Williams in the title role, but this less ambitious script is more impressive. Once again, the elusive BirdLand Theatre company has introduced Toronto to an up-and-coming American playwright, and those who catch it will be thankful.
Gruesome Playground Injuries runs until May 13.
Gruesome Playground Injuries
- Written by Rajiv Joseph
- Directed by Stefan Dzeparoski
- Starring Janet Porter and Peter Mooney
- At the Theatre Centre in Toronto
- 3.5 stars